Pentecost 23 – Sunday, November 19, 2017

November 19, 2017  
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Matthew 25:14-30

It isn’t unusual for the parables of Jesus to leave their listeners confused.

Jesus had a way of turning things around; Jesus gave stories unexpected twists that left his first centuries listeners wondering what in the world he was thinking.

Today, we have a story that appears to be about money. A master entrusts his slaves with varying amounts of money. They do different things with the money he has given them.

Back in the first century, a talent was the equivalent of what a common worker would earn in 15 years of labor.

Five talents was the equivalent of 75 years labor.

Doubling five talents in trade would have meant making the equivalent of 150 years labor. The first slave was quite the gambler. Consider the short life expectancies back in those days, he ended up with more money than he would have earned in several lifetimes.

The slave with two talents, which he doubled, gave his master a sixty-year equivalent income.

The problem slave in the parable is the third person. He was given one talent, worth 15 years labor. If a person in our times earned $25,000 a year, one talent would mean he was given $375,000.

We aren’t talking about pocket change, here. If this parable is about money, we are talking about a lot of it.

Whether the parable is really about money or not, certainly it is about a man giving other people something valuable. He entrusted them each with something of great value. He gave the valued thing to each of them for safe-keeping. Then he went away for a long time.

And he came back. He returned. He went to get back what he entrusted the other men with.

We know the rest of the story. We know the first two men took huge risks with the money they were given. They doubled the treasure. We know the man who entrusted them told them “Well done, good and trustworthy slave.”

Here’s the thing. Those two men did exactly what most people would not have done at the time. They gambled their wealth. Their gambling paid off, but it was still a great risk that they took.

The slave who buried the money he was given… that was what most people would have done. It was not uncommon at the time to bury wealth. It was like putting the money in a interest free account. It wasn’t gonna grow but it was safe.

He buried the money because he knew the master to be a harsh man. He was afraid. But because he returned the money without gain, he was told “You wicked and lazy slave.”

Just like 1st centuries Christians, we are waiting for the Risen Christ to return to the world. While we wait, what do we choose to do with the treasure God has provided us? What exactly IS the treasure God has provided us?

What is it that God wants us to share? What is it that God wants us to risk? How can we double its value?

Most obviously, God has given us all that we have and all that we are.

But—God’s greatest treasure was God’s gift of Jesus. God gave Jesus to the world knowing Jesus, God’s only Son, would die. God gave us Jesus knowing Jesus would conquer evil, conquer death, and bring us all the victory of eternal life. God gave us this precious treasure because God loves us. God loves the world. God’s deepest want for the world was and is redemption.

What do we do with the gifts God has given us? What do we do with God’s greatest gift. Do we bury God’s love somewhere, deep in our hearts and lives, hoarding it just for ourselves?

Or do we take God’s love out to the world, sharing it with others, multiplying God’s love in infinite ways?

In all actuality this is another stewardship sermon. But, this Sunday, I am asking how we steward God’s love.

Last Sunday I asked our youth to fill out talent resumes, telling me what they are good at and what they can do to help others. I was touched when I read them. I was touched by how caring our young people are. How generous. They want to listen to others, to help others, to make other people smile. We have good and generous young people in our midst, in part because they are being raised by this village of good and generous people.

Each of us has been given the greatest love we can ever receive. God loves us. We love each other. Let’s not keep our gift of love buried. Let’s share our gift of love. Let’s take risks with our gift of love. Let’s share it with others again, and again, and again… into eternity and beyond.

Amen.

Pledge Sunday – Sunday, November 12, 2017

November 12, 2017  
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Matthew 14:13-21

I chose the readings for today.

I was researching online for bible passages related to stewardship and this gospel reading was one that was suggested. As I read the verses, I was struck by a couple of things.

  1. Jesus didn’t feed the 5,000, the disciples did.
  2. The disciples didn’t think they had enough. Jesus showed them what they had was plenty.

Jesus was in the wilderness grieving the death of John the Baptist. Matthew makes is quite clear: Jesus wanted to be alone. The crowds wouldn’t let him. The crowds “followed him on foot from the towns” (Mat. 14:13b). A huge number of people gathered, 5,000 men plus all the women and children (Mat. 14:21). We could be talking about 10 – 15,000 people!

A commentator on the text wrote “The disciples are concerned for the crowds, who are not pictured as hungry and destitute, unable to purchase food, but as being so enthralled by Jesus’ healing activity that they are reluctant to leave” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 8, p. 324).

Thousands of people followed Jesus into the wilderness, captivated by the miracles he performed. By his healing touch. By his compassion.

Thousands of years later, millions of people around the world continue to be captivated by Jesus. We join the ranks of the billions who have, over time, turned to Jesus for salvation, moved by his healing touch, empowered by his compassion.

We follow Jesus, and like his first disciples, when we see the real needs of those around us, Jesus turns to us and tells us: feed them.

In the New Revised Standard Version of the text, Jesus said “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (Mat. 14:16).

In the contemporary version I read today, he said “There is no need to dismiss them. You give them supper” (The Message by Eugene Peterson, p. 39).

We have taken those instructions literally here at Our Savior’s. For 20 years we have been feeding people. I imagine, 20 years ago people were thinking “How can we do this? Where will the food come from? Will we have enough?” But there has always been enough. There have been enough people to do the work that needs to be done. There has been enough food to serve. In fact, there has always been plenty, with food left over, enough for people to take a second serving home.

When congregations plan budgets, a common theme emerges. Financial planning has been this way for centuries: people see need and want to respond. But people fear there won’t be enough money to do what needs doing.

We are like the disciples of Jesus, who look at five loaves of bread and two fish and realistically say “All we have are five loaves and two fish” (The Message, p. 39). In The New Revised Standard Version of the reading is more dramatic “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish” (Mat. 14:17).

How do we turn our thinking around? How do we see plenty rather than seeing ‘not enough’?

What you have to give to God, in service of God’s church, is plenty. And we are grateful. We are grateful for your gifts of time. We are grateful for the talents you offer. We are grateful for the financial support you provide. Wonderful things are being done here! We ‘feed the hungry’ because Jesus has called us to. We ‘clothe the naked’ because Jesus has called us to. We provide emergency assistance. We visit the sick, praying for healing and hope. We visit the homebound, offering a meal of bread and wine blessed at this table, bringing community to our church family members who are unable to come here to be with us. We teach children about the triune God. We worship together, singing our joy, singing our sorrows, singing our hopes and our dreams. We comfort those who grieve. We pray.  We root ourselves in scripture, in the Word of God as that Word is made real in our hearts and minds and lives. We make quilts and we send cards. We give what we have to others, supporting ministries in our region and around the world.

We do all of those things because you give. Because you come to church. Because you give to church. Because you ARE the church!

Lest I boast too much about all that we do, let me remind you. There is more to be done. There is always more to be done.

Jesus will always be turning to us and will always be saying “You give them something to eat. You give them something to wear. You give them comfort. You give them community. You give them hope. You share your joy!”

I have always given to whatever church I belong to. Like you, I give what I am able. I give time, talent, and treasure. I give because I am so deeply grateful for all that God has given me. I give because I have confidence in the power of the Risen Christ. I give because I trust this congregation’s determination to be a living, hopeful, joyful steward of God’s gifts.

I’m pledging to give more next year than I am giving this year. I’m increasing my gift to this church because I am grateful to be alive. I’m increasing my gift to this church because I believe the world needs more from us, because I believe our church, our neighbors, our region, our world needs more from this congregation.

I pray we all give more, do more, share more, sing more, hope more—knowing we have plenty to give, plenty to do, plenty to share, plenty to hope in.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

All Saints – Sunday, November 5, 2017

November 5, 2017  
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Matthew 5:1-12

Jesus said “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Mat. 5).

We celebrate the festival of All Saints today. Matthew 5 is an appropriate text for the day. As we name and remember those members of our parish who have died in the past year, as we all remember the people in our lives who we have loved that have died, (no matter how long ago), we mourn. We feel sorrow. For some there may be thoughts of regret.

It helps to hear Jesus’ words: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Jesus said “Blessed ARE those who mourn.”

Jesus did not say “Blessed are those who mourned (past tense).

Jesus did not say “Blessed are those who will mourn (Future tense).

Jesus made mourning active: “Blessed ARE those who mourn.”

Blessed are those who, right now, in this moment, mourn.

Any of us actively engaged in mourning, any of us that feel the pain of the losses we have experienced (no matter how long ago or how near in time the loss was)—Jesus tells us we are blessed.

Jesus promises us we will be comforted.

When we begin a funeral service, the first words the pastor speaks are (according to our hymnal) BLESSED BE THE GOD AND FATHER OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, THE SOURCE OF ALL MERCY AND THE GOD OF ALL CONSOLATION. GOD COMFORTS US IN ALL OUR SORROWS SO THAT WE CAN COMFORT OTHERS IN THEIR SORROWS WITH THE CONSOLATION WE OURSELVES HAVE RECEIVED FROM GOD.

According to our liturgy, there is no question about this. God IS the source of all mercy. God IS the God of all consolation. God comforts us.

On this day we remember the saints. We remember all the saints, those known to us and those unknown to us.

On this day we give time to our mourning, we openly mourn and celebrate the lives of all believers.

Today we lay claim to our grief. If griefs have been set aside, on this day we pick those griefs up, dust them off and re-member them. Rather than burying our feelings about those whom we have buried, today we lift our feelings up, we lift them up to God, asking God for the comfort God has promised us.

If you lift your eyes to the heavens today and ask “from where does my help come?” I’m thinking help isn’t going to shower down on you from above.

Look to your right. Look to your left. Look ahead of you. Look behind. The person or people sitting ahead or behind you, to your right or to your left—that person or those people—they are your brothers and sisters in Christ. They stand with you in voice and in prayer. They come with you to this altar, knowing and receiving the communion of saints and the forgiveness of sins. Those people may feel strong if you feel weak. That person may be feeling weak where you are strong. These people, they are your community of faith. They are here to offer God’s blessings and comfort—to you.

In confirmation class this past week I asked the question: Why do we believe? I asked “what’s in it for us?” and I asked “What do we have to give?” I was extremely pleased, when I asked “What’s in it for us?” that one of the first responses a student gave was “community.”

Here in this place, in this community of saints, living and dead—we receive God’s blessings and comfort.

Jesus said “Blessed are those who mourn.”

Another way of saying it would be to say “Holy are those who mourn.” Be blessed, being holy—both mean you are being “made” sacred as you mourn. We are being made sacred as we mourn.

Our grief becomes holy, in this place.

We don’t all wear our griefs on our sleeves. Midwesterners that we are, we tend to hold our griefs close to us. We carry our grief in our hearts.

The good news is, God sees our griefs, even there. God sees into our hearts. God knows us.

God knows our need to be comforted. God gives us this community of faith to offer that comfort, to hold that comfort out to us.

The person to your left. The person to your right. The person in front of you or behind—he or she might also carry grief. When we share the peace today—God’s peace—know you may be bringing real peace to your neighbor’s life. God’s peace. God’s comfort.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all, and with the company of saints we recall and re-member.

Amen.

Reformation – Wednesday, November 1, 2017

November 1, 2017  
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John 8:31-36

“Jesus then said to the Jews who believed in Him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’

Freedom. Liberty.
Being a child of the sixties and seventies, words about freedom were some of the first words I heard. People who spoke about freedom died; soldiers who believed they were fighting for freedom died; preachers who proclaimed freedom died.
There was a civil rights movement, a feminist movement, a war against war, a battle against the draft… all of those concerns reflected new understandings of freedom, new understandings of what it really meant to be freed from something.

I participated in my first political protest when I was nine years old. My best friend Linda Sue Muir and I painted cardboard signs that read “Stop Pollution” and we waved our signs at cars as people drove past our houses. Linda’s pastor drove by. He told her later that we spelled “pollution” wrong on our signs.

Free lungs, freedom from the draft, freedom to sit in the front of the bus, freedom to not wear a bra, freedom to drink from the whites only drinking fountain, freedom of speech… freedom as something important enough to fight for was a central theme during my childhood…

“You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
So Jesus said.

He was talking about the freedom he brought to the world, freedom from sin.

We are all slaves to sin. We are all bound by our own sinfulness. We all live with the consequences of our own sin. Racism is a consequence of sin. Sexism is a consequence of sin. Heterosexism is a consequence of sin. Age-ism is a consequence of sin. But it isn’t only “isms” that result from our sinfulness. We hurt each other in so many different ways, as humans. Because we sin. Because we are sin-full. And we cannot free ourselves.

Jesus said “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.

Jesus doesn’t free us from the pain that exists because our sinfulness ends up causing us to hurt both ourselves and each other. Jesus frees us from the penultimate consequence of sin, which is death. I am calling it penultimate because death isn’t the ultimate consequence, death is the 2nd to last consequence. The final, ultimate consequence is the promise of the resurrection. Death does not have final word. Freedom comes when we are born again into our resurrected life with Jesus Christ.

The promise of the resurrection allows us to live lives of freedom now, in this moment and in every moment of our lives. The promise of the resurrection allows us to, as I said last week, run through the streets announcing that “freedom is a reality” (James Cone, Black Theology).

Jesus said “If you continue in my word…You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.

His word was and is a word of love. His word was and is a word of grace. His word was and is a word of graceful, loving forgiveness. Knowing his love, knowing his grace, knowing his graceful, loving forgiveness—we are free.

We cannot let the story stop there, though. We need to take the next step, that running through the streets step that proclaims the freedom Christ offers to the rest of the world. We cannot hoard the grace we receive. We cannot keep God’s love to or for ourselves.

The first sermon I preached on this text was way back in 1982, when I was a student in seminary. I was working at an African American church in the Hunter’s Point District of San Francisco. I still have that sermon. In it I told the congregation “I know the truth. And I won’t shut up about it.

That was 35 years ago.
I still know the truth. And I haven’t shut up about it. I can’t. I won’t.
We all have as a primary duty of our faith the obligation to tell others this truth: Jesus frees you.

Jesus frees us to love one another as he has loved us. Not just one another meaning those of us who are here. One another meaning those of us who are here and everyone else we encounter in this world. And those we will never encounter, but who desperately need to know God’s love. To know God’s grace. To know God’s forgiveness. To know, really know the freedom God provides.

Amen.

Reformation Sunday – Sunday, October 29, 2017

October 29, 2017  
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What Does This Mean?
A pulpit drama written for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation by Pastor Joanne Richmond. Historical information from a sampler of The Reformation by Cameron A. Mackenzie.

(As we begin, a small chorus quietly sings “A Mighty Fortress” acapella. The narrator interrupts them. Luther is sitting at his desk, quietly reading.)

Narrator: The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther. Pastor Luther was born in 1483 to poor German peasants, Hans and Magarete Luther. During Martin’s childhood, Hans invested in a copper smelter. This greatly improved the family’s finances.

LUTHER: What does this mean?

Narrator: Financial security meant Hans could afford to provide Martin a robust education, including sending him to university. Hans wanted Martin to become a lawyer. Martin, more interested in his own spiritual well-being, chose to become a monk. His relationship with God consumed him. He was certain, because of his sin, he was destined to spend eternity in Hell.

LUTHER: What does this mean?

Narrator: Prior to, and during the turn of the 16th century, it was common for Christians to believe that humans, born into sin, needed to be “made right” with God. The sinful nature of humans separated them from God. The only way to repair the relationship was to live good lives. The better the life lived, the stronger their hope that God would receive them into God’s heavenly arms.

LUTHER: What does this mean?

Narrator: Even as a monk, Luther struggled with his faith. He carried the burdens of his sin in his heart. He began to resent a God who demanded something if him he could not give. The more he tried to live rightly, the more aware he was of the impossibility of his task. At this point, Luther’s advisor and mentor at the monastery decided to intervene. He wanted to turn Luther’s focus outward, rather than have him be so obsessed with his inner struggles. His advisor tasked him with being a university professor and parish priest.

LUTHER: What does this mean?

(A member of the chorus jumps up and begins to sing “A Mighty Fortress.” Other members pull the singer down into her/his seat, hushing her/him.)

Narrator: Luther delved into scripture, both as a teacher and as a preacher. He began to see a new truth: God LOVES sinners. Certainly God’s law stands in the world, illuminating human sin. But God LOVES sinners. God is merciful. God sent Jesus to the world not to condemn the world, but to save it. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus God promised all believers eternal life. Luther’s faith took root; Luther was confident not only in his own salvation, but in the salvation of all who believed in Jesus Christ, the blessed Child of God.

(The chorus member jumps up and starts singing “A Mighty Fortress” again, this time with a great enthusiasm. Others pull her/him down. Martin Luther looks at the chorus member as if asking “What in the world?”)

Narrator: At the time, the Church taught that a person would be forgiven by God if the person performed good works, works recognized by Church leaders as acceptable to God. Luther read scripture a bit differently.

(Luther stands, holding an open bible)

LUTHER: What does this mean?

Narrator: Luther discovered there was no one THING or set of THINGS one could do to be “right” with God. Except to believe that God makes life “right” for us. Luther finally understood, our actions and good intentions FOLLOW our faith in Jesus Christ, as signs of our faith. Our faith is in the power of God’s grace-full love.

(The enthusiastic chorus member stands up and starts to sing “Jesus loves me, this I know…” Other chorus members try to pull her/him down. She/he brushes them off and takes off singing “A Mighty Fortress.” They stop the singer. Again, Luther watches, perhaps irritated.)

Narrator: Luther’s beliefs, although popular throughout Europe, and compatible with other “new” religious thinkers, were controversial. In the Fall of 1517 Martin Luther prepared his 95-Theses.  These 95 statements of belief challenged the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences.

(Luther is rustling papers on his desk, getting them organized to nail on the door.)

LUTHER: (mumbles) What does this mean?

Narrator: indulgences were a way for believers to hasten their journey to heaven. It was believed that humans sinned far more than they could ever make up for, in the time they had on earth. Weighing sin against good works, sin would always tip the scales. So believers could purchase an indulgence from their local priest, shortening the time they would spend in purgatory, waiting to get into heaven.

(A member of the chorus makes a show of going and putting some money in a box near some candles.)

Narrator: By the turn of the 16th century, indulgences were becoming a way for the church to raise funds for different projects, or to pay debts. Luther found the practice a corruption of an already unnecessary task.

(Luther goes over and nails theses to door as narrator speaks.)

And so he posted his 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg.

(Chorus stands and sings “God’s Word is Our Great Heritage” # 509)

Narrator: Life became more complicated for Luther. Eventually declared a heretic (enemy of the church), Luther was called to stand before the Emperor in 1521. The court demanded Luther retract his writing. Luther refused. He was subsequently condemned, named an outlaw, and courts ordered his books burned. They only things that saved Martin Luther was his closeness to some who had power, who dedicated themselves to protecting him.

Narrator: Later in life, Luther married.

LUTHER: (looks terrified) What does this mean?

Narrator: Luther and his wife, Katie, purchased a farm where they raised six children. Katie, a former nun turned brewer, oversaw farm matters while Luther joined scholars of his time, a leader of the reformation!

Pentecost 20 – Sunday, October 22, 2017

October 22, 2017  
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Matthew 22:15-22

They had access to power and they were trying to figure out how to use it. They wanted Jesus dead.

In chapter 12 Matthew wrote that the Pharisees “went out and conspired against (Jesus), how to destroy him.”

Jesus was a threat, a threat to the Pharisees’ power, to their teachings, to the structures they created. They needed him gone. And so, in today’s reading we see the disciples of the Pharisees laying a trap.

The “census” was a controversial tax that had been imposed by the Romans long before this story was ever written. When the census was created it triggered a sense of nationalism amongst the Judeans that in turn created what was known as the Zealot movement. That movement led to a disastrous war during the middle of the first century. The census had been and would be a divisive, volatile issue. As one scholar wrote “It engendered deep feelings” (NIB vol. 8, p. 420), which is an understatement.

This situation, this set-up, this trap might have been lose-lose for Jesus. If he spoke in favor of the census he would alienate the nationalists who deeply opposed it. If he spoke against the census he would be subject to arrest by the Romans who imposed the tax. Jesus appears to have recognized the trap that was being laid. Remember, the Pharisees WANTED him dead… or at least gone. They were trying to destroy him.

We cannot lose sight of the radical nature of Jesus. The radical nature of his words. The radical nature of his deeds. The radical nature of his power. People tend to gravitate toward gentler images of Jesus: as a good shepherd, as the Lamb of God (a lamb which, need I remind you, was led to slaughter). But, the radical nature of Jesus, the radical nature of his Call to live and die and rise again for us and our salvation… that meant his naming both those who were suffering and his ability to save them. In doing, he threatened the religious authorities of his time. The natural consequence of that threat was that those he threatened wanted him destroyed.

I talk a lot about God’s love for the world.

I talk a lot about God’s gift of grace, the forgiveness of our sins.

I need to talk more about those who have been sinned against. That is what Jesus did. He identified with those who were sinned against. Think for a moment; think about the people Jesus healed, the women, the lepers, the crippled, the dead! Jesus healed them; Jesus gave them life! Many of those Jesus associated with were outcasts; Jesus brought them into the fold. Some of those Jesus served were bound; Jesus loosed their chains. Jesus loved prostitutes, dined with tax collectors, and released those who were possessed by demons. Jesus stood with those who suffered, those who were sinned against as well as those who sinned against. And he saved them.

In response to the trap set for him, Jesus said to the disciples of the Pharisees: Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

How do we know which is which?

I don’t think this is an either-or. I think we find ourselves standing with Jesus in a both-and place. We are citizens and we are Christians. We pay taxes and we give offerings.

Go to church.

Give to church.

Be the church.

We go to church to sing, to pray, to receive the forgiveness of sins, to celebrate the risen Christ. We go to church to be a part of the gathering of the faithful. We go to church to hear and to hope.

We give to church because so much has been given to us. As we will sing in a few minutes, “We give thee but thine own, what-e’er the gift might be…” We give in support of the ministries we do right here, in this place, in this neighborhood. We give in support of the work that is done in our region, done by Lutheran Campus Ministry at our colleges, done by Lutheran Social Services in our families and homes, done by our synod office in churches around the Coulee Region. We give in support of missionaries around the world. We give in support of new ministries in urban areas and old ministries re-visioning themselves.

How do we be the church?

Black Theologian James Cone wrote “The (New Testament) Church tells the world about Christ’s victory over alien hostile forces.” The church is, as Cone wrote “men and women running through the streets announcing that freedom is a reality” (Black Theology, essay pp. 112-131).

Freedom from sin. Freedom from bondage to sin. Freedom from those who sin against us. Freedom from the consequences of sin… death and pain and hurt and suffering. Freedom to live as resurrected people knowing we have been resurrected from the death sin causes and we will be resurrected from the dead.

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

We belong to God. Ourselves. Our time. Our possessions. We are God’s people. We are God’s people. We are called to proclaim to others what God has proclaim to us…

We are loved. We are forgiven. We are free. And so we say to the world:

You are loved. You are forgiven. You are free.

Amen.

Pentecost 19 – Sunday, October 15, 2017

October 15, 2017  
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Pentecost 19

Matthew 22:1-1

It was a dark and rainy night….

Not really. It was a fine Saturday that bled into a cold, rainy Saturday night, and then back to pleasant weather on Sunday. Weather like that could happen anytime.  There was really nothing special about the day or about the night except—a romance began that weekend that has continued for 25 years. Two teenagers fell in love. One was a senior in high school. The other was a couple of years younger. They were on a high school youth group adventure trip, from Westby, WI to West Ossipee, New Hampshire. I was their pastor. That weekend we rented a bus and traveled straight through Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts before arriving at camp.

Somewhere along the interstate the two of them noticed each other. Or maybe their love began on a mountaintop, at 3,475 feet. Or maybe it was on the beach at camp, watching the sunset. Or when they ran into the Atlantic Ocean. I can’t identify the exact moment they began to fall in love. But they did, and that love has sustained them for 25 years.

I married the couple in 1996. I’ve been in contact with them ever since. They reside here in La Crosse, both gainfully employed with two teenage boys.

Our gospel reading this morning is a dramatic story of calves being slaughtered and slaves being killed… it is dramatic and more than a little horrendous. At the story’s heart, though, a wedding took place. The story is about a wedding banquet. The king’s son was married.

The story is not a true story but a metaphor.

Matthew was not writing about a real life king he was writing about God AS king.

Matthew was not writing about a real life prince; Jesus, as the Son of God was the prince referred to.

And there was no bride… the bride in this story is us—the Church. Our love for God is intended to be like the love a bride has for her groom. The love a spouse has for their spouse…

In a few weeks we will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther, a founder of the Reformation and of our Lutheran tradition, wrote in a sermon he wrote based on today’s reading that

There are many kinds of love, but none is so ardent and fervent as a bride’s love, the love a new bride has to her bridegroom, and on the other hand, the bridegroom’s love for the bride.

Luther went on to say

As the bride loves her betrothed, so also does Christ love us; and we on the other hand will love him.

According to Luther, based on Matthew’s metaphor, our love for Christ is intended to be ardent, to be fervent, just as Christ ardently, fervently loves us.

The problem is, in the marriage between Christ and the Church we, the Church/bride/spouse… don’t end up measuring up. We come to our own wedding like the guest who forgot to wear a wedding robe. Don’t blame our intentions, blame our attention. Our intentions are pure but our attention strays. We are seduced by the world around us, seduced by sin. We find satisfaction in other people, other places, other things— betraying Jesus Christ.

Luther asked What do we give [Jesus]?

He answered his own question: we give Jesus an impure bride, a dirty, old, wrinkled outcast.

Ouch. I resemble that remark.

It is a tad bit sexist but his 16th century point remains—one spouse doesn’t deserve the other. In this instance, the bride doesn’t deserve the groom.

Luther wrote we should be saying to Jesus Thee alone will I have, thou art mine… not the ring, not the jewel, not the present.

Rather than saying this we bring Jesus, according to Luther Nothing but our heartaches, all our misfortunes, sins, misery and lamentations.

Not such a great way to begin a marriage.

When Jeanne and I were married here, in this place, we had the most spectacular wedding. A liturgical gymnast! Rainbow flags. Incredible organ and piano music and hymns. We both wore blue dresses and make-up and our hair was done up… we honored and celebrated our love for each other. More importantly, we honored and celebrated the love God has for us, and we for God.

God’s love for us is intimate. God’s love for us is complete. God’s love for us is eternal… forever.

I was talking to someone recently about marriage, and what my marriage has taught me.  I said I don’t really believe I knew what forgiveness was all about until I got married. A marriage without forgiveness is a marriage that won’t last. A marriage wherein the two married begin each day knowing how much they are willing to forgive—which is to say they will forgive much, and love more (both of them equally forgiving and loving)… that’s a marriage made in heaven.

God adorns us with love, like brides or grooms dressed for a wedding. God dresses us up and takes us out into the world where God’s love for us, and our love for God has the strength and the power to bring light to the darkest days and nights.

We can go anywhere, do anything, we can survive anything knowing God’s love. Which is why we celebrate that love today with a feast…  we celebrate a banquet of love. Like a wedding feast we celebrate love, our love for God and God’s love for us. The table is set. You invited to share the feast we call Holy Communion.

Amen.

Pentecost 18 – Sunday, October 8, 2017

October 8, 2017  
Filed under Sermons

Psalm 121

I’m stepping out of the assigned readings this morning. I want to preach on what has been and is in my heart, rather than on what has been given me.

Pastors have a habit of thinking we have to make everything ok.

I used to think this was what other people expected of pastors, that we make things ok for them. I’ve changed my thinking.

Maybe not all pastors think this, maybe only some of us do. Maybe only I think I have to make everything ok. I know, for certain, I have thought this was my job. My Call To make everything ok for everyone. And I know, as I progressed through my cancer surgery and treatments, that I fell back into this place of thinking that I had to reassure everyone else that things were going to be ok. It has always been my expectation of myself; I have to make everything alright.

I had never read psalm 121 before I became a pastor. I first encountered psalm 121 my first week of my first call in my first parish. I had three funerals that week. The pastor’s occasional services book included as a suggested reading for funerals psalm 121. I read the psalm and I remember being captivated by its relevance to all of us living in the coulee region. All we have to do is look out our windows to know the experience of the psalm… to look to the hills. So I read psalm 121 during each of those funerals. I continue to read it at most funerals I conduct.

Psalm 121 was not written as a funeral psalm it was written as a traveler’s psalm.

Folks sang psalm 121 as they traveled toward Jerusalem, traveling through rough, rugged hills. They were afraid. If they traveled at night they were afraid of wild animals and the darkness. If they traveled by day they were afraid of thieves. The journey toward Jerusalem was rarely without risk. And so they sang.

I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come?

My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.

The travelers wanted to believe they would be safe. They trusted they were not alone.

Later in the psalm the singers sing

The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in,

from this time forth and forevermore.

It makes sense travelers would sing this. They go out, off on their journeys. Then they return. They go out. They come in.

In the context of death, the meaning changes because people go… but there is no return. That’s why death hurts us so.

After years of reading and preaching on psalm 121, for funeral after funeral, I discovered the psalm was once used in the Norwegian Order for Holy Baptism.

Any of you that were baptized using a Norwegian Service, with the pastor and or the people speaking Norwegian—psalm 121 was probably read.

It makes so much sense, for this psalm to be a baptism psalm.

The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth and forevermore.

Our Lutheran tradition teaches us that, through baptism, we are brought into the family of faith. In the moment of baptism God acts, cleansing us, empowering us, sending us forth to live as God’s children. We  go out into the world, baptized children of God, to grow into a promise: God is with us. God is helping us. God is watching over us.

As children, God is with us as we learn, as we play, as we experience the joys and the pains of childhood.

As young adults God is with us as we make important decisions about life, about our own lives, about others, about what we know and what we still want to learn, what we want to do, who we want to be or to be with.

As we age, God is with us, in our joys and our pains. God is with us as our bodies grow out instead of up. God is with us when we ask “What?” instead of “why?” God is with us when relationships end, when families re-define themselves, when children we love begin the struggles we have, ourselves, lived through.

God is with us when friends and those we love die. God is with us when all of those new beginnings become new endings.

God is with us when we begin to know in our hearts what it means to have someone go and not come in again.

God is with us on this journey we call life.

As we travel through time God is with us.

It brings so much comfort, knowing we are not alone.

We are not alone. We are never alone. God is with us.

God’s presence does not mean everything will be ok. God’s presence means we are not along to face everything.

When we walk out the doors to this church we are not alone. God is with us.

God watches over us.

God watches over our going out and our coming in, from this time forth and forevermore.

We’ve all been watching the news these past weeks, watching stories of suffering coming from Puerto Rico, from Florida, from Texas, from Las Vegas…  many of us know people who knew people who were there, in one of those places. Or we know them ourselves.

When we stand up or speak out or take a knee or place our hand over our heart… trying to figure out conflicts between people that may or may not make sense to us…

We can’t, in this moment, just kiss the wounds and make it all ok. What we can do is to trust that God is with us on this journey. And then we go with God, we go where our hearts lead us, we go where God takes us… preaching and teaching and speaking and living words of love. We go, wrapped in the loving embrace of God. We lift our eyes to the hills, confident help comes from the maker, from the creator of all things. Amen.

Pentecost 17 – Sunday, October 1, 2017

October 1, 2017  
Filed under Sermons

Philippians 2:1-13 & Matthew 21:23-32

Dialogue Sermon

 

“What do you think?”

What does it mean when I ask the question?

So… what DO you think?

About the gospel, first.

(Other questions: What do we know about the temple, about chief priests and elders? About John? About prostitutes and Tax collectors?)

What do we know about Paul’s letter to the Philippians?

Look at what Paul wrote… what is he saying about Jesus?

Now combine these two readings…

What do these readings say to us, today, about what it means to be a Christian?

What do you think?

Humility +

Trust (in God) +

Belief (in Jesus as the Son of God) =

Our Call as Christians

 

Once again, It’s not about us!

It is about God working through us to share God’s love with the world.

That’s the message J.C. brought to the world.

That’s the message that Religious leaders of the time refused to hear/belief.

Pentecost 16 – Sunday, September 24, 2017

September 24, 2017  
Filed under Sermons

Matthew 20:1-1

I was ordained September 27, 1986… that’s 31 years ago.

I am so grateful to be here today, in this place, serving you. I never really believed any of this could happen, let alone that it would.

My ordination service took place in the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, in Rockford, IL. I was baptized in that church. I was confirmed and took my first communion there. I was a member of Good Shepherd all my life, up until I received my first Call to be associate pastor down in Westby.

Last January I was invited to return to Rockford, to return to Good Shepherd to preach in celebration of the congregation’s 75th anniversary. As I wrote in a recent edition of the Messenger, my sermon had three points, each point based on something my parents taught me about what it means to be a follower of Christ.

We have adopted those three points as our theme for Stewardship this year: Go the Church! Give to Church! Be the Church!

Go the Church!

My parents taught me how important it is that we gather with a fellowship of believers. Really, the community that develops in congregations is vital to having a healthy life. Strength comes from being with others who accept you, who love you, who stand by you in the name of Jesus Christ, as servants. My parents still attend Good Shepherd Lutheran. My twin sister is a member there, along with her husband, daughter, and grandson. Whenever I return I feel like I’m at home. I see my high school Sunday School teacher, I see folks I sang in Youth Choir with, I get a hug from the mother of my first college roommate.

It was never a question in my parents’ household, we were going to church. Sundays. Wednesday nights. Thursday nights. Friday night. I remember as a child snuggling into my mother’s fur coat during a cold Lenten evening service. I remember biking across town to go to bible school. There was not a time I did not want to go to church… Because I could see, I could feel the love that was there for me. The same love is here for you. Whether this is your first time worshipping here, or your thousandth.

Give to Church!

I was taught to give generously. Give time. Give talent. Give money. My mother has written a check to her church every Sunday, sitting at her kitchen table, for as long as I can remember. Last January when I told that story at her church, she started to giggle. In the middle of my sermon. I later found out she wrote a check that morning, but forgot to bring it with her. The check was still sitting on the kitchen table.

 My family was active in church. I’ve said this in a sermon before. At one point in my home congregation’s life my father was president of the congregation, my mother was president of the Ladies Aid, and I was president of the youth group. Now my sister is a member of church council at the same church… give to church. Give time, Give talent. We need you and your expertise. Even if you aren’t an expert at anything, we need you here.

Be the Church!

In all that you say and do, know God lives. God speaks. God acts in and through you. God’s Work; Our Hands. So we are called to love one another.

Being the Church goes beyond us being here together. When we are the Church we are constantly examining who we are, what we do, what we say, asking if this is what a beloved Child of God would be, would do, would say.

Which is where our stewardship theme falls into today’s gospel message.

None of us would like it if we were working somewhere and we arrived at work on time, were guaranteed a certain amount of pay for a certain amount of time worked—and then we saw other people come to work late, really late, hardly put anytime into working, yet they get paid the same amount as you or me. It would be infuriating.

But the story is not really about people going to work and getting paid. The story is about God’s love for us.

God loves us all as much as God can. It does matter how much we Go to Church or Give to Church, or even how much we are Being the Church. God loves us as much as God possibly can. You can be like me, raised in the Church and devoted to it. Or you could be someone who walked into church for the first time today. God loves us equally. Which is to say ultimately—God’s love cannot be surpassed in power or might or thoroughness.

Our God is a generous God.

What we do in response to God’s generous love is to Go to Church. What we do in response to God’s generous love is to Give to Church. What we do in response to God’s generous love is to Be the Church.

We do these out of gratitude, not merit.

To Go, to Be, To Give—these are commitments made because, and only because, God so generously and gracefully loves us.

We welcome Ruby Eleanor into the Lord’s family today. As we do, we make promises to her. Parents and sponsors, you promise to raise her as a member of the Lord’s family, bringing her to church, teaching her about the faith we all share.

In support of you, we as a congregation make commitments. To help you teach Ruby. To love her and guide her. This is a family of faith. In Ruby’s name, and in the name of every person gathered here today we celebrate God’s love for every person. Always God will love her. Always God will love each of us.

Amen.

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